Baseball award season is upon us as the first highlight of the offseason. While there have already been a couple of big trades, the big awards give us the chance to finally move past the 2015 season and start focusing on what will come in the ensuing months, especially now that many marquee free agents will begin their quest to ensure the future of their descendants. As it happens when awards are announced, the rookies of the year were the first to be called, and with them came a special distinction.
In the American League, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa won the vote by a tight margin over Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor. While any of them would have been a worthy choice, Correa’s pedigree and the fact that his team made the playoff ultimately pushed him towards the award, with 17 of the 30 first-place votes. However, the National League saw Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant dominate the voting and earn the ROY in unanimous fashion, finishing a whopping 80 points above second place Matt Duffy.
In a season that was full of quality rookies who may end up being franchise cornerstones, Bryant’s performance stood above the rest by virtue of his preternatural power and surprising all-around play. He led all rookies with a 5.9 WAR, 26 homers, and 99 RBI, while also guiding the Cubs to a surprising playoff berth that ended in the NLCS. Even as it is always a tricky proposition to project how rookies will perform in the long haul, his body of work and the talent around him suggest that Bryant may be the real deal.
The Rookie of the Year award has been full of variance over its history, with winners ranging from perennial All-Stars and Hall of Famers, to busts and what-ifs. It may be hard to recall now, but the likes of Bobby Crosby and Eric Hinske have won this award, only to later become baseball afterthoughts. However, as Bryant earned this distinction in unanimous fashion, he has joined a select group of players who did the same, and their futures ended up being mostly great.
Bryant is the 20th player in history to become a unanimous Rookie of the Year, and the first one in Cubs lore. If his career gravitates towards what the previous 19 winners have done, he should be on a good spot going forward, while Chicago can enjoy his production for many years to come. With this in mind, today we take a look at all the unanimous ROY honorees, and analyze the impressive club Kris Bryant has joined.
The Productive Journeymen
These four players won their awards over the span of a decade, and had a lot in common in doing so. Their selection was probably a product of their time, as none of them actually led their league in rookie WAR, and instead built their cases with high traditional batting stats. Also, they didn’t actually beat any future superstar in the year they won, which made their selection defensible in many ways.
But even if these players were not transcendental selections in the end, all four of them ended up becoming productive major leaguers for many seasons. Coleman was the least productive of the bunch, with a 13-year career that produced 12.2 WAR. Santiago player for 9 teams over 19 years, with a 27.2 WAR and a World Series appearance. Alomar played for 7 franchises over 20 seasons, with 13.7 WAR and a short peak that earned him 6 All-Star nods. Mondesi spent 13 years among 7 teams, producing 29.4 WAR and 271 homers.
Even as none of them can be considered a rousing success, many rookies would kill for the kind of endurance and productivity these players had in the big leagues.
The second tier of unanimous ROY winners includes 4 retired guys who were franchise cornerstones for large parts of their careers, along with 3 active players who have followed their rookie seasons with strong campaigns. The first four finished their careers with at least 40 WAR, while the active group is well on its way to have a similar career path, which is just a bit shy of Hall of Fame consideration, but still regarded as a great player.
First of all, Mark McGwire dominated the AL vote in a year with no serious threats, but he backed up his selection with a memorable career that finished with 62 WAR and 583 homers. On numbers alone, he should be a Hall of Famer, but the endless PED talk behind him suggests that only a veterans’ committee would be able to get him inducted.
Salmon, Rolen, and Garciaparra followed similar career trajectories, as their initial success was later marred by injuries that cut their shelf lives short, only after becoming a franchise icon. Salmon played all of his 14 seasons in Anaheim, winning a World Series in 2002 and twice finishing in the MVP top 10. Rolen started with the Phillies but earned a name in St. Louis, where he established himself as a defensive wizard at third and won a World Series in 2006; he was an All-Star 7 times and finished with 70 WAR. Nomar was a special case, as he once was considered a future Hall of Famer, but who could never stay on the field. Despite playing at least 150 games in only 3 of his 14 MLB seasons, he finished with 44 WAR and 229 homers.
Longoria has three top-10 MVP finishes, and almost automatically became the face of the Rays franchise. Even as his bat has dwindled, he has already accumulated 42.6 WAR by age 30, settling as a 3-win player with plus defense. He could become a HOF player if he manages to bounce back, but odds are he will finish in a similar note to what Scott Rolen did. Similarly, Abreu had a superb rookie season, but his projections have been tempered now that the league has seen him a bit more. The Cuban import is already 28 and probably at his peak, but with nearly 10 WAR over his first two seasons, his career path should see him be very productive for the next few years.
Finally, Kimbrel is the only pitcher on this list, which is kind of remarkable. His breakout season has been reaffirmed by continued dominance in the closer role, even as he is now headed to his third team by age 27. His low innings totals prevent him from racking up a high WAR, but on a pitch-by-pitch basis, he is one of the best relievers of his generation.
Odds are that Bryant’s career will fall into this middle, with him becoming a great player that could be propelled to the next tiers if a lot of things break right.
The Future Hall of Famers
As far as successful rookies go, these players left their mark in their initial years and then became historic players in their own right. The four have combined for 42 All-Star games, playoff success, and an indelible mark on the franchises they’ve played for. While they are not yet part of the Hall of Fame, they are bound to join the club eventually.
Piazza was ROY in the same year Pedro Martinez made his debut, becoming one of the best hitters of the NL from the catcher position. All he then did was make 12 straight All-Star teams, finish 7 times in the MVP top 10, and become arguably the best offensive catcher in baseball history. His 59.4 career WAR may seem a bit low, but he is inching closer and closer to a spot in Cooperstown.
Jeter’s case is as slam-dunk as it gets, even if he was a ROY winner in a thin year for rookies. He not only became the face of the Yankees, but the face of baseball as New York’s captain who won 5 World Series. While his 71.8 WAR was hampered by poor defensive metrics, his induction into the Hall of Fame is merely a formality.
Pujols and Trout remain active, and have been teammates for a few years now. Pujols won the ROY over solid players like Roy Oswalt and Jimmy Rollins, en route to winning 2 World Series in St. Louis and 3 MVP’s as well. He has accumulated 99.7 WAR by age 35, and is still under contract with the Angels for six more years. On the other hand, it may be a stretch to call Trout a future HOFer with only 4+ years of tenure, but he’s done everything to show he is a special player. He beat Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish comfortably to win the ROY, and is almost certain to start his career with 4 straight top-2 MVP finishes. Only 23 and with nearly 40 WAR under his belt, the sky is the limit for Mike Trout.
The Cooperstown Gang
Frank Robinson (1956), Orlando Cepeda (1958), Willie McCovey (1959), Carlton Fisk (1972)
The inaugural Rookie of the Year award was handed in 1947 to Jackie Robinson, but in 1956 we had the first combination of future Hall of Famers in the same year, as Frank Robinson win in the NL and Luis Aparicio took it in the AL. Robinson did it unanimously, and ended up becoming one of MLB’s marquee players. Despite coming up with Cincinnati, he became an icon in Baltimore, with two World Series titles that were the cherry in a career that also included 2 MVP’s and 586 homers. He finished his career with 107.2 WAR.
It’s amazing to think that the Giants are known for their modern dynasty, but never could win it all in the sixties despite their amazing core. This included two consecutive unanimous ROY in Cepeda and McCovey, who easily lapped the field in the NL. Cepeda may be one of the thinnest Hall of Fame members in terms of WAR (50.3), but he was certainly a special player that won an MVP years later. On the other hand, McCovey was the perfect complement to Willie Mays, ending his career with 64.4 WAR and 521 homers, as well as an MVP.
Finally, Carlton Fisk won the ROY with an impressive 7.3-WAR season as a rookie, which ended up being the best one of his career. However, he made it up with endurance and a track record of success, spanning 24 seasons and becoming an icon both with the Red Sox and the White Sox. With 376 homers and 68.3 WAR primarily as a catcher, Pudge’s career remains almost unparalleled.
In the end, Kris Bryant’s career could go in many different trajectories, but let’s just say that he is now part of a special group of players, and Cubs fans certainly hope that he is elevated to the upper tiers.